Why is the Arab League silent about Darfur?

Arab and Muslim nations condemn Israel but remain mute in the face of ongoing ethnic cleansing in Sudan.

This week, the Arab League met for its annual ministerial summit and issued a condemnation of Israel for bombing a weapons factory in Sudan. Israel has not admitted destroying the Yarmouk facility on 23 October, because it never confirms or denies such military operations. However, it is accepted by the international community that Israel is the perpetrator. It is also widely believed both inside Sudan and beyond that Yarmouk was making weapons both for and on behalf of Iran, and smuggling them to Hamas in Gaza.

Arab and Muslim countries have responded swiftly and with a united voice, expressing outrage at Israel’s actions. Yet, for almost ten years the same organisations have been mute in the face of the ongoing ethnic cleansing and murder of Muslims in Sudan’s remote western region, Darfur.

It surprises friends in Britain when I explain that Sudan’s avowedly Islamist regime has been ruthlessly ethnically cleansing their fellow Muslims. People assume the deaths of an estimated 300,000 Darfuris have religious roots, Muslim against non-Muslim.

This misapprehension is understandable: for decades Sudan’s rulers tried to ‘Arabise’ and impose their version of Islam on the non-Arab and non-Muslim inhabitants of southern Sudan, resulting in more than two million deaths, and leading to South Sudan’s eventual secession last year.

No one disputes that Muslims around the world stand in solidarity with the long-suffering Palestinian people. Equally they are rightly horrified by attacks on European Muslims by far-right racist groups, and by the recent violence against the Muslim minority in Burma. One of the Koran’s central messages is that Muslims must care for each other, showing each other hospitality, charity, protection and solidarity.

Yet, the plight of their fellow Muslims in Darfur has been of little concern for a decade. If any opinion is expressed, it is usually to blame Israel for funding Darfur’s rebels. Khartoum has succeeded in convincing most Arab, Muslim, and even African countries that the bloodshed in Darfur is due to a foreign plot against Khartoum. Depending on their audience, representatives of the regime will frame this conspiracy as colonialist, imperialist or Zionist.

This shameful silence is compounded by commentators and academics in the west who are afraid they will be seen as racist or Zionist for criticising Sudan, a Muslim nation. They therefore explain the violence in Darfur as a consequence of ancient tribal rivalries, and scant economic development, coupled with desertification due to climate change. What they avoid at all costs is suggesting what millions of black Africans know from bitter experience: that in many parts of the Muslim world, black people are regarded as racial inferior.

Racial prejudice is the motive that few dare mention, knowing they will instantly be branded as Zionists or Islamophobic. For many, Darfuris are simply the wrong kind of Muslims because they are black and African. How else can one explain the lack of outrage at the Sudanese regime’s systematic destruction of black African villages in Darfur? The violence in Darfur continues to rage, with the Sudanese armed forces bombing villages while arming its disgruntled local Arab proxies to ethnically cleanse the black African tribes with whom they existed for centuries.

When the Sudanese security forces prevent UNAMID, the international peacekeeping force, from investigating such attacks, those who fund UNAMID, including the British government, remain silent, becoming complicit in the atrocities taking place against Sudanese citizens by its own government. 

Back in July 2004 the UN Security Council passed a resolution giving Khartoum 30 days to bring the Arab militia under control, or to face international action. There have been no consequences for the Sudan regime, and all these years later several similar UN resolutions remain unenforced. Why? Because Sudan can always count on the support of its business partners, Russia and China, and the unquestioning backing of Arab and Muslim nations.

Arab and Muslim nations show legitimate concern for the plight of the Palestinians. It is time for voices in the region to hold Khartoum to account for its years of massive human rights abuses. It tarnishes the reputation of Islam everywhere and makes a mockery of the Koran’s fundamental message.

A Sudanese displaced boy looks at a Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur soldier standing guard. Photograph: Getty Images.

Magdy el-Baghdady is an activist with Waging Peace, which campaigns against human rights violations in Sudan.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue